Posts tagged Locke

Adam Smith Forum lecture on Social Compact theories–Hobbes v. Locke

My 11-12-11 lecture at the Adam Smith Forum in Moscow, Russia:

Column on Abusing the Social Contract

Abusing the Social Contract

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset it needs to be noted that whatever is called the social contract, it is not actually a contract which is “an agreement entered into by two or more parties with the serious intention of creating a legal obligation or obligations, which may or may not have elements in writing. Contracts can also be formed orally (parol contracts). The remedy at law for breach of contract is usually ‘damages’ or monetary compensation. In equity, the remedy can be specific performance of the contract or an injunction.”

So then, contracts are legal instruments, means by which legally backed agreements are recorded and used to settle disputes about the parties’ obligations. The idea of a so called social contract is, actually, an oxymoron since most social acts aren’t legal ones. A better term for what is usually meant by “social contract” would be social compact, an plain agreement of some kind.

The idea has been around for centuries. Even Socrates touched on it in Plato’s Republic, but it gained prominence mainly in the writings of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes used the device of an imaginary social compact that everyone in society would enter into. The purpose of it is to come up with the most sensible principles of social organization. What if we all got together and reached an agreement about what principles should govern the way we live in a society? What, indeed, would everyone agree to if they had a chance to take part in such an event?

In Hobbes the social compact or contract had been the central device for identifying the principles of justice. No other edicts would be drawn upon, although implicitly the device assumes that participants would all be reasonable, rational people who are pursuing their self-interest. The result of the establishment of such a compact would be a system of principles and laws that would aim to secure peace and prosperity. Everyone can easily be imagined to sign on because such a system would be in everyone’s interest.

Hobbes also imagined that such a system would need an enforcer, a nearly absolute monarch, so as to keep people from breaching the agreement they entered into when they felt like they could get away with this. The powerful monarch or government would dissuade them from breaking the law. But if the near-absolute monarch turned out to be a serious threat to the lives of the citizenry, they could resist and depose such a ruler.

This idea, by the way, found its way into the Declaration of Independence. Here is how it’s put there: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

In the writings of the grandparent of the American political tradition, John Locke, the idea changes somewhat because Locke believed that the principles of justice are derivable from human nature and agreement is only necessary for selecting who would secure or protect those principles. So, in effect, the social compact creates the means by which just law is to be protected. The governing body is created by the compact, not the principles of government! And for Locke this isn’t only hypothetical but quite literal. It is why the Declaration talks of the consent of the governed, something that Hobbes’ theory doesn’t require except hypothetically.

The idea made its appearance in the works of Immanuel Kant, too, although in a rather convoluted fashion and, more recently, in the work of John Rawls’s, the most prominent political philosopher in the 20th century whose book A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971) invokes, once again, an imaginary social compact. Everyone supposedly enters into this “behind a veil of ignorance,” meaning, without knowing who one will be in the country established by it. (That is one way that such a system would be a fair one, which was a very important goal for Rawls.)

Social compact/contract theories are appealing for being anti-elitist, for not invoking the idea of a natural ruler, political elite or aristocracy. They are, however, also too committed to the ideal of majority rule, as if gaining the hypothetical consent of the people justified all kinds of oppressive measures against individuals. Moreover, such theories leave it quite undecided who is authorized to implement and maintain them.

Just as, for example, Massachusetts politician Elizabeth Warren recently declared that taking private property is justified by some alleged social contract and authorizes her and other politicians to do this taking in the name of this contract, so many others who make use of the idea deploy it for the sake of making riding roughshod over the citizenry by some large number of them palatable. As she put it, “part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that [what you have earned] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

But this is a non-sequitor–no such contract has established Warren’s or anyone else’s authority to violate the basic individual rights of citizens of a free country. And even if it had, no one has consented to Warren or anyone else doing any taking in the name of society! No one can agree to violating rights, especially other people’s, which one has by nature.

Column on Liberty versus Stimulus

Liberty versus Stimulus

Tibor R. Machan

Despite all the bad blood and heated rhetoric–name calling, besmirching, hyperbole and other polemics–involved in our current political-economic controversies, there really is a substantive point of considerable difference at issue. Put bluntly, the Obama team is convinced that unless people get a push from the state, or some kind of prompters, they will not move; whereas many in the Tea Party and their allies believe that people will move on their own once they are free to do so.

Free market champions tend, in the main, to believe that what is needed for economic growth–including the ensuing surge in productivity, sales, investments and employment–is for the government to stop butting into people’s economic lives. Once that happens, the bulk of libertarians and free marketeers think, there will be plenty of action, generated by the people who will then be free to exercise their initiative. Freedom of enterprise is the main issue for these folks. They aren’t mean, they do not lack compassion, they just have greater confidence in human beings picking themselves up by their own bootstraps then in others beating them into action, stimulating them to move out, etc. As to those who need help, this too is best left to private initiative than to state action which is fraught with corruption.

In the most general way the Keynesians who are advising and cheering on President Obama consider this free enterprise doctrine primitive, something for which the philosophical and scientific basis has been thoroughly discredited. The grandfather of the American system, John Locke, often spoke as if people did have free will–basically they are all free and independent, he held. Similarly Adam Smith believed that a regime of liberty will unleash the kind of energy that gets people to seek to prosper–that is the gist of the invisible hand idea. Governments may need to help with keeping the peace since there will always be some miscreants who want to cheat their way to prosperity on the backs of their fellows but in the main those are exceptions, The bulk of the population in a society can get on with the job of earning a living, of creativity and productivity, without government meddling and prodding and waiving around all sorts of artificial inducements for people to get to work.

That has been, roughly, the outlook of modern free market political economists, although that’s not to say that all of its champions have been in full agreement about the basic ideas. Free will, for example, isn’t what all champions of economic and political liberty accept but even those who do not hold to the idea that there is some kind of inner drive–some call it self-interest, some the profit motive, some the instinct for survival–that will be unleashed in a free system.

In contrast, the sort of view of human nature found in Keynes and among his followers comes to the idea that to get moving from their natural and preferred state of rest, people have to be pushed or stimulated. Only if policies that exhibit these features are implemented will there be economic activity. (Even the free market champions embrace some of this when they claim, as a lot of them do, that what gets people to work is “demand.” The famous supply and demand idea suggests this, although there are free marketeers who are what used to be called supply-siders, which is to say that they believe the way the economy gets going is with people thinking up stuff to produce and taking it to market which will then generate purchases, etc. So the issue isn’t neatly describable.)

So, the crux of the debate is between those who expect economic growth to come from personal initiative that is usually thwarted by governments and those who believe some super agency needs to spur us all into action–via thousands of regulations and the planning of the economy in ways the state agents think important but the economic actors do not have in mind.

Thus the stimulus that Mr. Obama & Co. advocate comes with state generated public works that are supposed to beef up the infrastructure, create demand for what they think would be important to produce, etc. The free market people, in contrast, leave the economic growth to the multitude of interactions among free economic agents who aren’t told to do this or that, to build roads or bridges or paint or write or whatever (which is what planners usually count on for getting economic activity going). No, the free market champions leave it to the people and their creative and productive initiative to generate economic activity, with results that aren’t predictable and that cannot be planned out by politicians and bureaucrats.

So, the bottom line is that the big dispute is indeed a substantive one, between those who have confidence in freedom and those who trust manipulation–out right force or substantial nudging.

Column on Individualism Isn’t Rediculous

Individualism Isn’t Ridiculous

Tibor R. Machan*

Some critics of individualism propose an alternative social philosophy and defend it so it is then possible to compare their case to the individualist position. But more often than not what critics do is caricature individualism, suggesting that individualist believe that people are autonomous, meaning, exist all on their own with no need for anyone else. Or they claim individualism means that no one has any moral responsibilities toward anyone else. Or that everyone is basically self-sufficient or should be.

Now clearly very young people have to have the support of their parents, at least, and their intimates so as to get on in life. As they grow up the support they enjoy can gradually be made optional–some support will be rejected by them, as when they refuse to follow their parents’ religious or political guidance. Yet, how would one acquire something as important as one’s language and other skills if there were no teachers about to lend a hand?

Our obvious connections to many, many other people certainly cannot reasonably be denied; so by alleging that individualism requires one to believe in people’s radical independence the critics have their victory via distortion, without actually having to make out a better case. Moreover they leave the impression that their preferred alternative, whereby we all belong to society and owe everything to it, is the only one and is trouble free.

But the kind of individualism that sensible individualists champion isn’t some ridiculous notion that people can grow up and live as hermits. Even if in some very rare cases this were possible, it is surely not the sort of individualism that is promoted in social political philosophy (e.g., by the likes of John Locke, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand). Such individualism focuses on the moral and intellectual sovereignty of people; they need to make choices, and be free to do so, about how to act in much of their lives which they are normally equipped to do. And they need to be able to assess ideas propounded to them by others, make sure these are sound ones and not have them shoved down their throats as is done in more or less Draconian tyrannies.

This is the kind of individualism that’s advanced by reasonable individualists and if it is a good idea, it implies that a decent human community, a just one, needs to be so conceived that people can indeed enjoy sovereignty, that when they join others in various endeavors they do this of their own free will, voluntarily and not be treated like military conscripts (or termites or ants whose identity consists entirely of being tied to others of their species).

A very important point to keep in mind is that individualism isn’t at all the same as forswearing the company of others. What individualism implies is that everyone needs to be free to select those with whom one will associate, be this in adult family life, in friendship, in professional life, in sports and in recreation. Unlike the associations typical of a place like North Korea–and the military of many Western countries–as the individualist sees it adult human beings ought to exercise discretion when they join up with others. Some of this, of course, can misfire–e.g., when one let’s oneself be guided by irrational prejudices such as race or national background (although at times these are mere easy options for some folks, with no malice involved). Or when one chooses to join criminal gangs.

The central point is that individualism prizes more than other social philosophies the personal, private input of all those who take part in adult human associations. These must all be voluntary, in large part because they amount to vital moral decisions on everyone’s part which one would be deprived of making if one were herded into groups one hasn’t chosen to join. True, there will always be some gray areas, as when one is “pressured” by one’s peers or family to be part of some assembly of people one would ideally wish to be free of. There must be an exit option for free men and women but it may take some doing to make use of it.

As with most matters in human life, we aren’t dealing here with geometrical exactitude, just as Aristotle observed over 2500 years ago. But all in all the individualist alternative is far more accommodating of human nature and social life than are the collectivist alternatives that get a lot of support from social philosophers–communitarians, socialists, or social democrats–these days.

*Machan is the author of Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998). He teaches at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He blogs at

Column on Infanticide & Instincts

Column on Infanticide & Instincts

Tibor R. Machan

As life rolls on for me, with many pluses and some minuses along the way, an issue that keeps propping up in my more academic studies is whether people have instincts like non-human animals supposedly do. Or are we born with what some refer to as a blank slate, tabula rasa? That is to say, is the human mind, before it receives the impressions gained from experience, totally or at least mostly uninformed or does it contain some information and guidance for action, various beliefs and so forth, from birth or even before?

Among many of my colleagues and associates, indeed quite a few of my good friends, this is a live topic and we tend to watch for events around us, as well as for books, papers, essays and so on, wherein it figures prominently. One of the major thinkers of the modern era, Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804), even believed that the human mind contains some very vital information as a matter of a birthright, as it were, so that, for example, we all arrive in the world already believing in such notions as causality or time or space, we do not need to be exposed to the facts of reality first in order to acquire them. They are innate.

Another very famous and influential thinker, the philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) who is credited with developing some of the most crucial principles the American founders held to be constitutive of justice itself–the idea of basic, natural, human individual rights (remember the Declaration of Independence where Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founders made prominent use of it)–held the view that the human mind is indeed a blank slate, lacking all knowledge and in need of acquiring it as people commence and continue living. Others, such as the French philosopher Rene Descartes–often dubbed the founder of modern philosophy and an influential mathematician as well–also advocated a view sort of like Kant’s, holding as he did that human beings had a few but vital innate ideas, such as the awareness of their own reality! (Such contemporary thinkers as Noam Chomsky and Steve Pinker continue debating the issue.)

One point often stressed by supporters of the innate idea or instinctive knowledge position in defense of their view is that mothers, clearly, have an instinctive love for their children and know, innately, what they need to do for them so they would grow up flourishing rather than being neglected or even perishing. Yet this is just the evidence that I find highly dubious and just the other day it was seriously called into question once again, when a mother was found to have murdered two of her little sons. As CNN reported the story, “The mother of two boys,” the CNN report stated, “says she smothered them with her hands, strapped their bodies in car seats and submerged the car in a South Carolina river.” Purportedly she had experienced some serious setbacks in her life, including being unemployed, which may help account for what she did.

Now the matter that stood out for me, aside from the horror of it–anyone who knows a thing or two about being a parent would have to experience some such feeling upon running across this type of news, of which, sadly, there is aplenty–namely, where on earth were those alleged instincts in this mother, the innate knowledge of the wrongness of such a deed and therefore the instinctual disinclination to commit it, that people talk about when they defend the idea of instincts. And, of course, this instance of infanticide is but one among hundreds and thousands of others well known from history and around the globe.

It seems to me that the notion that we have instincts has some credibility only vis-a-vis very few kinds of human conduct, such as babies suckling instinctively. Clearly they would not have had any time to learn that that’s how they must sustain their lives so they must have something built in, as it were, that gets them to feed from their mothers’ breasts. And maybe there are some very few other (early) human behaviors that are instinctive but they are quickly extinguished and thereafter we indeed need to learn how to proceed unprepared apart from certain capacities, with the great variety of tasks in our lives. Unlike other animals, we need to set out to learn, often with deliberation and discipline–it doesn’t just happen. (Boy, is that driven home to anyone who is a professional teacher!).

This is a topic with a great deal of ink spent on it, in and out of the academy, and here I am barely touching the surface. But it does seem to me that the anti-instinct side of the debate is more credible. Lacking instincts may well be one of those features of human life that serves to distinguished us from other animals.